How to achieve Global (and China) dexterity.
How to achieve global (and China) business dexterity.

Clients doing business in China often ask our China lawyers what they should read “to prepare for China” and our answers to that question usually vary with the client and the circumstances. How is that for a lawyer answer?

But for clients with little to no experienced with conducting business overseas, I have of late been recommending the book, Global Dexterity: How to Adopt Your Behavior Across Cultures without Losing Yourself in the Process, by Andy Molinsky, a professor of organizational behavior at Brandeis International Business School. I was reminded of that today when a friend sent me a link to a Fast Company Magazine article by Molinsky, entitled, Master the Art of Adapting to a Foreign Office Culture.

This article starts out with a situation in which pretty much all of us who do business overseas have encountered:

If you have ever lived or worked in a foreign culture, you have likely confronted situations in which the natural, comfortable “default” behavior from your native culture turns out to be ineffective for a situation you find yourself in within a new cultural environment.

In each of these situations, you don’t just struggle with understanding cultural differences. Rather, you struggle with the far more challenging task of actually changing your culturally ingrained behavior. I call this ability global dexterity—the capacity to adapt your behavior, when necessary, in a foreign cultural environment to accommodate new and different expectations that vary from those of your native cultural setting.

Molinsky then discusses the tension between changing so as to conform to your foreign surroundings so as to end the discomfort, but not changing so much as to become “inauthentic.” I personally can relate to this tension and I often hear others expressing similar concerns. You want to adapt but at the same time retain your “core.” And it is not just people that face this tension; companies do as well. See Explanations For Apple’s China Success, where way back in 2010 I talk about how Apple’s China success is due in large measure to its having “stuck to its knitting.”

Molinsky’s prescription for resolving the tension is to first learn the cultural rules, or what he calls the cultural code. He defines the cultural code as each “situation you face—whether it’s learning to give constructive criticism, make small talk, negotiate, participate at a meeting, or ask a favor of your boss—has certain rules for appropriate behavior in a given cultural setting.” He then portrays them in terms of six dimensions that capture the expectations that others have for our behavior in a foreign setting”:

These six dimensions represent key aspects of communication that differ across cultures, and that previous researchers in psychology and cross-cultural communication have shown to predict important personal and professional outcomes. Of course, there are many potential dimensions of communication style, and these six features are not the only dimensions that exist, or that differ across cultures. However, in my experience, this particular set does an excellent job at capturing cultural differences in a succinct, but comprehensive manner:

Directness: How straightforwardly you’re expected to communicate in a particular situation. Are you expected to say exactly what you want to say, or to “hint” at something in a more indirect manner?

Enthusiasm: How much emotion and energy you are expected to show when communicating. Can you express how you feel, or is it more appropriate to hide your positive feelings?

Formality: The amount of deference and respect you are expected to display with your communication style. Are you expected to show a high level of respect when communicating with someone in a particular situation, or can you be more informal?

Assertiveness: How strongly you are expected or allowed to voice your opinion and advocate your point of view in a particular culture and in a particular situation in that culture. Should you be forthright in expressing yourself, or work at hiding or sublimating your point of view?

Self-promotion: The extent to which you can speak positively about yourself in a given cultural situation. Should you actively promote your positive qualifications or be more self-effacing?

Personal disclosure: The extent to which it is appropriate to reveal personal information about yourself to others. Should you be open and forward in expressing details about your life, or is it more appropriate to hide these personal details?
Each situation you encounter in a foreign setting will have a specific cultural code for behavior along each of these dimensions. When motivating workers in India, there is a certain level or amount of assertiveness that you will be expected to show as a leader. When bonding with work colleagues after hours at a restaurant or bar in Japan, a certain level of enthusiasm is expected, which is quite different from how enthusiastically you are expected to behave in other situations that you might encounter in Japan.

I know the above sounds complicated, but I do think that just reflecting upon these sorts of issues can help one to better navigate business in foreign countries like China. And hey, even if it doesn’t, it certainly can make for interesting discussions.

Do you agree?

Fong’s Cat. Des Moines, Iowa. Photo is from Fong’s Website at www.fongspizza.com
Fong’s Cat. Des Moines, Iowa. Photo is from Fong’s Website at www.fongspizza.com

According to yet another highly scientific and thoroughly researched study, Beijing was just named as the world’s most livable city. No big surprise there, what with its recently cleaned air, its friendly cab drivers, and its overall friendly and polite vibe. The fact that it has such pure drinking water and low rents no doubt aided in this choice. Paris came in second, which makes complete sense, particularly if you are Jewish and have no problem living in a city where large swaths are no-go zones. It also may be the only city in the world with cab drivers as pleasant as in Beijing, and its citizens match Beijing’s really one for one in both friendliness and politeness.

And rounding out the top three — again no surprise here — is Des Moines, Iowa. If you doubt this choice, I have two words for you Fong’s Pizza.

How do you rank the world’s cities on livability?

Ben's China Blog
If you were wondering, Ben is the tall White guy.

Way back in 2007, in a post entitled, Promising China Blog: Ben’s Blog Is Certainly “Cutting Edge,” we highlighted what was then called Ben’s Blog: A Midwesterner in the Middle Kingdom. At that point, Ben described himself and the purpose of his blog, as follows:

My name is Benjamin Ross and I am an American originally from Kansas City. I finished college in 2003 and came to China the following year. My reasons for coming to China were that I wanted to experience a lifestyle completely different from my cushy life in the “burbs.” I wanted to be shocked and isolated. I also wanted to learn a foreign language and actually have the chance to use it. For this reason, I did not want to go to a major city like Beijing or Shanghai. Rather, I found a job in Fuqing, a small town located in Fujian province in Southeastern China. For a year and a half I worked there as a University English teacher, until I moved to Fuzhou (the provincial capital in Summer of 2005. My current gig is doing ethnographic research for Pacific Ethnography.

I am also an amateur writer and photographer. Unless otherwise noted, all of the photography on this site was done by me. While in China I have also worked as an interpreter, TV extra, regular game-show contestant, and token white guy. Interesting (and often humorous) things happen in China all the time, so this blog is where I try to keep people up to date of what’s going on in my little corner of the Middle Kingdom.

What made Ben’s blog unique, however, was his foray into hair cutting (hence the incredibly witty title of my “cutting edge” post). Ben worked as a trainee at a local barbershop for less than $100 a month to get a better feel for China’s working class:

As an American living in China, I have spent the last three years of my life enjoying the benefits of being a citizen of a country which is far wealthier than the one in which I reside. I travel around town by taxi. I drink at expensive bars. I eat sushi. I take trips across the country, and when my apartment is dirty, I call a maid to clean it up. My life is not that different from the other several hundred Westerners who call Fuzhou home. We all come to China for the “China experience,” but we still live our lives with the advantages of being Westerners. But what is it like to be one of the 6 million Chinese residents of Fuzhou, especially those of the working class? For us China is fun and relaxing. It’s a place we come to expand our horizons, to learn a culture, to spend our copious free time studying Tai Chi and Chinese cooking or picking up girls at the bar. But for Fuzhou’s working class, there is no such fun and relaxation, no time for hobbies and no money for Tsingtaos at the pub. Work is a way of life and a means for survival.

Tomorrow I will begin a one-month stint as a ?? (trainee) at a local barber shop/salon. The manager will be treating me just like any other beginning employee his first days on the job. I will be starting at the very bottom of the barbershop food chain, and my duties will include sweeping hair, cleaning bathrooms, assisting barbers, and entertaining customers as they have their hair cut. Throughout the month I will have only three days off, and work the rest from 9 am to 8 pm. I will essentially be a slave to my job which for one month pays what I would make in one day of teaching English.

What I hope to gain from this experience is an understanding of what Chinese workers go through on a daily basis. What is it like to work a job 10 hours a day, 6 days a week, for a salary of less than $100 a month? How will this put into perspective my life in China as a foreigner, or my life in America as an American? How does the other half (or in this case 99.9%) live, and how do the respond to a foreigner trying to do the same? I hope to find the answers to these questions, and hopefully have a little fun doing it. I will be keeping my blog updated daily for the next month, so check back regularly for updates, and wish me luck. I’m going to need it.

I loved Ben’s blog back then because I loved Ben’s observations regarding the people with whom he worked and their industry. But Ben left China in August 2007 and eventually pursued a Ph.d in Sociology at the University of Chicago.

But for reasons of which I am not aware (and having just learned this from Facebook) Ben is back in China and blogging again about the business of hair in his inimitable style. The first post I read from his latest China trip is entitled Why has everything in China gotten more expensive…except for haircuts? and that post as well as anything that I have read anywhere encapsulates the brutal cost increases and competition that pretty much all companies — foreign and domestic — face when trying to do business in China. If you are interested in China from just about any perspective, including business, I urge you to start reading Ben Ross’s Blog (it’s current name). Take advantage of it while Ben is there as this is likely to be a limited time offer.

As most everyone who flies around China already knows, flight delays are maddeningly common there. As anyone who has been doing much flying around China in the last few months already knows, those flight delays are becoming even more common and even longer.

And now Business Week tells us that things are only going to get worse. In China’s Horrible Flight Delays Are About to Get Worse, Business Week’s Beijing Bureau Chief Dexter Roberts informs us of the following:

Those who fly China’s not-so-friendly skies are about to spend even more time grounded. “Passengers in east and central China will face mass flight delays until Aug. 15, the China Daily reported on July 22.

China’s official English language paper cited as its source a report by news.cnr.cn, the website of China National Radio. National radio reporters, in turn, spoke to China’s civil aviation authority, which confirmed that delays are expected at Hongqiao and Pudong airports in Shanghai, as well as in major cities nearby, including Nanjing, Hangzhou, Hefei, Wuxi, Jinan, and Qingdao.

Great. Our China lawyers are already having to adjust. Just last week, one of them was to go to from Beijing to Wuhan to meet with a client at 5:00 p.m. Rather than risk her being late, we decided to fly her in the day before. Guess what happened? The client’s flight was delayed and the meeting did not take place until the following morning. Either way, we sprang for an extra night in a hotel and all because we cannot rely on the flight schedule.

Hardly any foreign companies doing business in China have not already or will not be impacted by this. What are you seeing out there?

 

I wish it were not so, but I have apparently developed quite the reputation for complaining about service in Chinese hotels.  See e.g., Beijing Sheraton Great Wall. China Writ Large Or Me Just Being Petty? Prior to my Great Wall post, I would typically point out one or two examples of bad service at a China hotel that would be incredibly unusual anywhere else.

I just got returned from a couple of weeks traveling on business through Asia, and while there, two people emailed me to say that they hoped my China hotel experiences would be better this time.

I spent time in Japan, Singapore, Vietnam and Korea. And I spent two nights in Beijing on a 72 hour (free) visa that I picked up at Beijing Capital Airport. Just as an aside, it took me all of about 45 seconds to get that visa; it is great!

I was traveling alone and there for only two days and so I decided I would go upscale. So I stayed at a very well known, very expensive, very swanky Western-owned five star hotel. The hotel is gorgeous in every way and in most respects, the service was amazing.

Nonetheless, I once again experienced an incident that again makes me wonder what the hell is up with service in China.

But before I tell you about that incident, let me note that it was only at my Beijing hotel that I had any complaints about my trip. I spent five days at a $100 a night Sheraton in Hanoi and it was great. All I really want is decent service.

So what happened at the Five Star Beijing Hotel? My first morning there I went down for a buffet breakfast. The breakfast room is gorgeous, with marble floors. I loaded up my plate, to include two tiny ears of corn and I was walking to grab some bread when I slipped and fell. Somehow, and truly amazingly, I was able to catch my fall while keeping the plate balanced; the two ears of corn flew off, but that was it. Two Americans right there clapped.

Some guy from the hotel ran over, clearly worried about my fall. I insisted that I was fine (I was) and I pointed out a puddle of water maybe a foot long and a foot wide where I fell. I then looked around and noted and pointed out another puddle maybe ten feet away. The guy who had run over to me started quietly yelling at an elder woman who immediately wiped up my puddle.  I went back to my seat, ate a bit and then decided to come back for more.

What did I see? You guessed it. Three small puddles spaced around the breakfast room, including the one ten feet from the one that tripped me up. The cleaning staff had cleaned up “my” puddle but nobody had looked around for more puddles or cleaned up the other one I pointed out. It is unbelievable to me that neither the guy nor the woman made any real effort to make sure that the floor was completely safe. It seems all that concerned them was impressing upon me that they were fixing things.

After breakfast, I met with a China lawyer friend who has been in Beijing for about a year and told him what had happened. I asked him whether my always “seeing” things like this in China was because I was being unfair or hyper-critical or what?  I asked him why it was ALWAYS China. He immediately said it’s China and not me. He said that he deals with stuff like this all the time.

He then told me of how at his son’s Chinese emblematic school the kids were told of how they were going to start playing baseball. They were to buy uniforms. His kid was thrilled and my lawyer friend went out and bought the uniform and some equipment for his son. A baseball coach was brought in and for a couple days he taught the kids some skills. On a Saturday or a Sunday, a bunch of schools got together and everyone played a game. The kid loved it. The head of the school and various government functionaries all spoke about sports in the schools, etc.

And then that was it. Just the one game. No more practices. No more games.

The China lawyer said that this was emblematic of China. The whole baseball thing was done simply to say that it had been done. It was done to look good. It was done to check something off. It was not done to inculcate the kids with baseball skills or baseball knowledge. According to this lawyer, this is what caused me to slip. China does not really concern itself with quality. It concerns itself with appearances. The goal is to be “good enough” not “great.” He said this, not me.

So again, I ask, what is going on here?

We started a China Law Blog Group on Linkedin with the goal of creating a spam-free source for China networking, information and discussion. We now have nearly 8,500 members and, more importantly, a number of lively discussions.

We have had some absolutely terrific discussions, both based on the numbers (a number of the discussions have received around 100 comments and some have gone over 200) and on their substance. Our discussions have ranged from practical (such as, how do I open a China bank account or what are the best practices for a China Joint Venture or what is the most important thing to do for doing business in China) to deep think (such as, what is the future of rule of law in China? or what are the differences in how Chinese companies and French companies are run).

What also boosts the group is its diversity of membership. We have a large contingent of members within China and without. Some members are China lawyers, but the overwhelming majority are not. We have senior personnel (both China attorneys and executives) from both large and small companies and a whole host of junior personnel as well. We have students and we have professors. This mix only contributes to the high level of discussions.

I am most proud of how (at least as far as I know) no spam item has yet lasted on the site for anything even approaching 24 hours.

If you want to learn more about China law or business, if you want to discuss China law or business, or if you want to network with others doing China law or business, I suggest you check out our China Law Blog Group on Linkedin and join up. The more people in our group, the better the discussions.

We will see you there. Click here and join us.

Flew to Beijing the other day.

Going through the security line in Seattle was an elderly obviously Japanese couple in front of me.  They were pulled over — presumably randomly — for a full-on talking to and pat-down.  As I walked past them I mused to myself that I was not aware of an elderly Japanese couple ever having engaged in terrorism and that pulling them over was a complete waste of time and of American goodwill.  They come to Seattle as tourists and are subjected to this.  There’s something both silly and wrong about that.

I land in Beijing and I walk through customs without anyone seeming to care one bit. But off to the side, I see what look like 5-6 poorly dressed Somali and Arab single men being intensely grilled by Chinese security. I felt bad for them, but….

I remember being in Korea not long after 9-11 and a Korean lawyer-friend assuring me that I had nothing to worry about there:  “Don’t worry,” he told me, “we have the names and locations of every Arab in this country and if anything at  all happens we will round all of them up and ship them out.  We are not like the United States.”  I’ll say.

Last time I went to Japan (less than a year ago), I noted how all of the people being subjected to extra scrutiny upon arrival were Filipino women.  I felt really bad about that too, yet I cannot deny I was happy to get through the entry line at warp speed.

Not sure I like either the random or the grouping approach. Both obviously have their glaring flaws.

China, Korea, Japan.  What makes these countries act one way and the United States another? What is a country to do? Which approach is better and why?  Call me a typical American, but I lean towards the civil liberties side.  I cannot stand the thought of marking an entire people when most are no threat at all.  Past performance is a predictor of future performance and nobody can sensibly deny that the odds of a young Saudi being a terrorist are a lot higher than an elderly Japanese, but still, the odds are low for both people.  And where do we stop?  A few months ago, a civil liberties lawyer on TV said that if we really want to stop crime, we should just incarcerate every male between 16 and 30. He’s right, but who wants to do that. If we diminish ourselves in how we treat others, the terrorists win.

It’s a tough world out there. What do you think?

To say I am paranoid when I travel would be an understatement.  To say I am pleased when I find some justification for my paranoia would also be an understatement.

Let me explain.

When I travel, I am on constant guard for two things.  One, getting sick.  And two, getting ripped off.  Last year I put in well over 100,000 actual miles on one airline (and countless additional miles on other airlines) and I never had a thing ripped off nor did I ever get sick enough to miss a thing.  I am pretty sure I can say the same thing for every year going back at least five years.

I attribute my physical and fiscal health to my paranoia, which involves me constantly doing the following:

1.  Absolutely never relinquishing my one carry-on bag (I usually put my tiny briefcase with my MacBook Air in that one bag) to anyone.  Not to the cab driver who wants to put it in the trunk (I always take it into the cab with me because I can always imagine either the cab driver or me forgetting it in the trunk and then the cab driver driving off without either of us having any method for reaching the other).  Not to the porter at the hotel (I am constantly reminded of a friend who once who got the wrong bag delivered to his room by a porter in Seoul and then did not discover it until a few days later when he opened the bag in the United States to see that it contained the clothes of someone of the opposite sex.)  And not to the airline stewards who want to shove it who knows where.  No, dammit, my luggage always stays with me.  And now I have further proof of why this should be the case. Lost Laowai Blog recently did a post, entitled, Warning to watch your carry-on luggage, thieves take to the air, detailing how common it has become on China flights for gangs to steal luggage on planes that are in the overhead bins too far away from their owners.  Fortunately, I never sleep on airplanes.

2.  Always keeping enough money in two different places on my person (one hidden) whenever I leave the hotel.

3.  Not going to brothels or anything that might be a brothel.  And avoiding any neighborhood at night that might look sketchy.  I also always travel with the address card and phone number of my hotel, usually in multiple places on my person.  It also never hurts to have a few local friends on quick dial on your cell phone in the event you get lost.

4.  On the health front, I drink bottled water wherever I travel, no matter how safe the water supply.  Call me nutty, but I am of the view that all water contains bacteria (true fact) and that anything but my home water contains bacteria to which my body is not accustomed.  I also never ever ever eat at a buffet.  And though I am well aware that most street food is perfectly safe (and that Anthony Bourdain and others insist that it can be the safest food of all), I avoid it entirely.  I do that simply because my not being a local means that I do not know enough to know which stalls are good and which are not.  The same is, of course true of restaurants, but with those I go where my local friends tell me to go or I simply go to those that are clearly popular and thus have a rapid turnover of food.  I also make it a point to exercise every day while traveling (I try to depart mid-morning so as to get a work-out in before flying) and I also make it a point to get a full night’s sleep and to eat three full meals a day.

Having said all this, I don’t want anyone to think I’m a stick in the mud because I always make an effort to enjoy myself wherever I go.  I just find that doing the above enhances my enjoyment, rather than detracting from it.

What do you do to stay safe and healthy on the road?

A story I always tell — heck I told it earlier this week — about China revolves around toilet paper. My story is as follows:

A year or so ago I was in Vietnam visiting my daughter, who was there studying.  We were in an airport when I walked away to go to a rest room. As I neared the rest room, I realized I did not have any toilet paper on me so I walked back to my daughter and asked her for some.  She looked at me like I had two heads, stated that she had none, and suggested I just get some from the bathroom. I then queried whether there would be any in the bathroom, to which she replied, “of course, why wouldn’t there be.” I then told her of how the toilet paper gets stolen from virtually every bathroom in China.  She looked at me puzzled. Later I asked her about poison being put into food in Vietnam and she said she told me she had never heard of such a thing.

Just this week, I got into a long discussion with a reporter for a U.S. based national newspaper. This person is now the China reporter for the paper, but he previously lived in Vietnam and he has lived in various Asian cities over the last decade. We talked about differences between Vietnam and China, including poison in food. He said China was the only country in which that was a problem. I then relayed how I used to believe that China’s poor record regarding product defects was grossly overrated and due only to the fact that China made so many products. But my view changed someone very high up in the United States’ Consumer Protection Agency empirically refuted my theory.  This person told me that year in and year out, China’s defect rate (at least those that make it to the agency) is six times worse per product made than any other country.  Wow.

I am bringing this all up today because though the whole toilet paper thing is my story, dammit, it seems the Wall Street Journal’s Real Time Blog is the first to go to print with it. The post “Toilet Paper Abuse Prompts China Morality Debate” starts out by asking “What does abuse of free toilet paper at public bathrooms say about the state of a country’s public morality?”

It seems that linking morality to toilet paper has become a big issue in Qingdao, where the city is stocking toilet paper in the public restrooms for tourists:

That’s the question Chinese people have been debating since news emerged late last month that an experimental free toilet paper program in a coastal Chinese city had resulted in users making off with as much as two kilometers of the gratis paper per day.

In a story discussed widely on provincial TV stations, as well as on Chinese social media sites, sanitation authorities in the picturesque city of Qingdao say they have spent around 1.5 million yuan ($236,000) since June 15 installing and stocking free toilet paper dispensers at public lavatories in 24 locations – part of an effort to make things more convenient for tourists during the peak summer months.

How is it that the city has spent nearly $10,000 on toilet paper per location in less than a month? It’s not just about overuse, according to those responsible for maintaining supplies.

“Most people take some before they go into the toilet then grab some more on their way out,” Zhu Xincong, who oversees one of Qingdao’s public toilets, said in an interview with Shandong TV.

So what is it with the toilet paper in China?  Poverty? Morality? Something else?  And serious question, is rampant theft of toilet paper common in any other country? And what about poisoning food? Is that a related question or a completely separate one.  And does any other country have the same sort of problem? Does product defects relate at all to either of these things?

And what about the cleanliness of the restrooms in a country?  How does China compare and what does that mean? A very recent (and very thoughtful) Harvard Business Review Post, “Of Clean Toilets and Competitive Economies,” talks of how Singapore’s spotless restrooms evidence its competitive advantage. Is there some truth to that?  And if there is (or even if there isn’t), how do China’s restrooms rate on the world scale? Who gives a crap?

Have at it people…